Friday, April 29, 2016
ONE WRONG THING: Runner2
Don't give the player a "bonus chance" that's really just a chance to fail.
You can get Runner2 at http://www.runner2.com/
Other footage from:
Little Big Planet
NHL 16 (thanks, Senpai-Chan!)
Rock Band 3
Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien is a rhythm platformer, just like its predecessor Bit.Trip Runner. Your character runs automatically and you avoid obstacles by doing things like jumping and sliding at the right time. The timing is rhythmic and your actions affect the music, so in a sense it’s like DDR or Guitar Hero expressed as a platformer.
There’s also gold to collect, which is technically optional. While hitting an obstacle is instant failure, if you miss a gold pickup, the level continues. If you finish a level without collecting all the gold, it just ends… but if you get all the gold, you get a "bonus chance” at the end of the level - you hop into a cannon and shoot yourself at a target. The closer you are to the bullseye, the more points you get.
If you miss the bullseye, you still get a “Perfect” on the level - after all, you got all the gold. But if you hit the bullseye, you instead get a “Perfect Plus,” meaning you got all the gold AND hit the bullseye. There’s an achievement for getting Perfect Plus on every single level, so to 100% the game you have to hit the bullseye on every level.
The bullseye presents a challenge that is unrelated to the rest of the gameplay - it does technically require timing, but it’s not keyed to the music and it’s not part of an autoscrolling level. It’s just watching the cannon and hitting the button when it’s at the right angle. It’s essentially a separate minigame that you play when you finish a level, but it’s still required in order to get full credit for that level. And it’s the exact same challenge for every single level. To complete the challenge for the very first level, which teaches the player to jump, you have to shoot out of this cannon at the right time. And to complete the challenge for much later levels testing much more complex and difficult skills, you have to shoot out of this same cannon at the same right time.
It’s boring, and you have to do it over and over in pursuit of the Perfect Plus ratings. And if you’re going for Perfect Plus, failing to hit the bullseye is actually the most heavily punished failure in the game.
When you hit an obstacle, your punishment is to be whisked back to the level start - or to the midlevel checkpoint if you activated it. When you miss a gold pickup the level continues and you can generally just hit an obstacle to get whisked back if you want to try again. But if you miss the bullseye, you’ve still “completed” the level - you get your Perfect, not Perfect Plus, sit through your score screen, press a button to retry the level, wait for the level to load, and then finally get back to the beginning - a transition that's nearly instantaneous if you hit an obstacle. That means that hitting an obstacle right before the level ends - which is supposed to be considered failure - is better than successfully completing the level but missing the bullseye. The difference is even greater if you’ve activated the mid-level checkpoint, since then hitting the obstacle would only take you back to that checkpoint, but missing the bullseye means replaying the entire level.
Simply put, this isn’t a “Bonus Chance”. A bonus is something extra given freely. If hitting the bullseye is necessary for success, then this is a failure chance! It’s a chance to turn success into failure. Seeing the cannon and target show up doesn't feel like a reward for completing a level perfectly, possibly after a lot of practice - it's a stressful moment in which you wonder if you're about to invalidate your own achievement.
So how would I do it if I had my way? If I were Videogame King for a day?
Perfect Plus should have nothing to do with the cannon and bullseye. Getting the top rating on a level, and thereby getting all the achievements, should not require completing a rote task unrelated to the game’s main challenge and with the game's harshest punishment attached. Instead, you should get a Perfect Plus by getting a Perfect on a level without the use of the mid-level checkpoint, as this means that not only did you avoid all obstacles and collect all gold, but you did so in a single and complete perfect run. If you fail an attempt by hitting an obstacle - you're just sent right back to the beginning for another try. No extra waiting. And when you pull it off, it means you've really learned to play the entire level flawlessly, start to finish. This is a much more meaningful accomplishment that relies on mastery over a particular level’s challenges.
For the cannon itself - the easiest thing would be to remove it. But I think there is something worth salvaging here. There is something to be said for ending levels with a bang, to give the player a bit of a catharsis.
When you finish a level in Little Big Planet, the game gives you a few seconds during which you can move and dance freely to celebrate your victory. This would be even more effective in a game like Runner2, where you spend most of your time reacting to very specific timed cues. Just like with goal celebrations in NHL16 that let the player express themselves or Big Rock Endings in Rock Band games that encourage the player to just wail on the inputs they previously needed to hit in a very structured way, a few seconds of celebratory freedom would be a great way to release the tension built up by running a level perfectly. Let the player make their own music by jumping, kicking, sliding, and dancing to their own rhythm. That's how you end a level with a bang.
All the ingredients were already there - there was no need to add in the cannon mechanic and dilute the central gameplay. Runner2 is a great game that gets a lot right, but the “Bonus Chance” cannon is one wrong thing.